Dear Carolyn: My girlfriend and I recently broke up.
When we started dating, she had told me she still had some feelings for her ex. They had recently broken up after four years of dating because they moved to different colleges.
Over the course of our relationship, they would regularly talk and text. She used to consider him a best friend. Obviously, we used to fight a lot over him, but in the end I didn’t mind because I was madly in love with her and she loved me too.
So, after one fight, she told me she wants to break up with me because she still loves him. After 10 days, she got back together long-distance with her ex.
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Now, I don’t know what to do. I still love her very much. We still hang out and talk. I tried having no communication with her, but it was too difficult. I missed her so much. She was such a big part of my daily life and now it’s all gone.
I have been acting like a very good friend, trying to help her whenever she wants, hanging out with her a lot, what a very close friend would do. It’s the only way I can be with her.
So, what should I do?
See that pain as your friend.
Yes, it hurt to have your girlfriend out of your life so completely and suddenly.
But when you buckled after only a few days or weeks of her absence and put her back in your life, you denied yourself access to our natural ways of recovering from loss.
Surely you’ve witnessed grief before, be it from a breakup or a death: People generally are leveled by a loss for days, then aching for weeks, then back on their feet but distracted for months. Then their ability to laugh and feel joy starts to grow back despite their certainty it never would. Then they notice their sadness still visits, but it doesn’t stay.
This isn’t magic. It’s emotional self-defense: Humans generally – repeat, generally – can’t sustain acute emotions. It’s in our makeup to become accustomed to our new circumstances, even unwelcome ones, and for our psyches to try to stretch back out to their full emotional ranges again even within difficult limits.
To remain in your ex-girlfriend’s orbit as you’ve chosen to, lapping up her attention, hoping she'll take you back while “acting” – your word – as if you’re her friend, is merely to accept a bearable (for now), chronic pain instead of an agony that will break down and disperse with time.
So my advice is to take your agony now, right in the face. Recognize that it will pass and don’t give in to your craving to see her. Trust yourself to handle the pain and trust yourself to recover and trust that life After Her will be Julie-Andrews-twirling-on-the-mountaintop better than life in a codependent heap at her feet. You will grow into the empty space your ex leaves in her absence – but only if you summon the strength to leave that space alone.
Email Carolyn at firstname.lastname@example.org, follow her at facebook.com/carolyn.hax or chat with her online at 10 a.m. each Friday at washingtonpost.com.